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Democratic Candidates Answer Yes-Or-No Questions About Criminal Justice Policy

There are a lot of people running for president. That record-breaking field has made it hard to compare the candidates ideologically — overall and on individual issues.

The catch-all, macro metrics we usually rely on — the FiveThirtyEight trump score and DW-Nominate, for example — don’t work that well for the 2020 field. Those measures rely on congressional roll-call votes, and some of the candidates have never served in Congress (Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang, for example) or have not done so recently (Joe Biden and Jay Inslee). Also, some of the issues that the candidates are addressing on the trail, such as legalizing marijuana, haven’t really come up that much on Capitol Hill for votes, so those aren’t represented in the macro scores.

Another option for assessing the field is to go micro and look at each candidate’s current position on each issue. But that has problems, too. The 2020 Democratic primary has turned into something of a wonk-off — the candidates are releasing a seemingly endless string of policy papers. But these plans don’t necessarily tell you that much. You really need to be well-versed in a specific issue to suss out if a proposal is new — as opposed to merely what the Obama administration was already doing and any Democrat would do if elected — or different from another candidate’s positions.

So in the next few months, we’re going to try to bring a little clarity to the 2020 policy debates. The plan: ask every campaign a set of yes-or-no policy questions within a larger issue. To start, we asked the 23 most prominent Democratic presidential campaigns six questions about criminal justice policy.1 The goal here is to reveal not only what the candidates might do if elected president, but also how that differs from the rest of the field — hence the decision to use yes-no questions, which will allow us (and you) to compare the candidates systematically.

How’d we choose the questions? There’s no formula for coming up with a manageable set of questions that adequately represent criminal justice (or any other issue). We picked policy issues that are already prominent in the news, as well as cribbing from the criminal justice platform of the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning policy organization that has worked on these issues with both Democratic and Republican officials. We intentionally looked for questions that might illustrate differences between the candidates. For example, we assume that the field generally is in favor of steps to limit the number of people fined or sent to jail for marijuana use — basically all Democratic elected officials have that stance, as do many Republicans. Instead, we asked the candidates whether they support full legalization of marijuana, which lets us know which candidates want to go a step beyond the most politically safe position and which do not.

Here’s what we found:

Some takeaways:

The field is way to the left of where the Democratic Party used to be on criminal justice issues

We got responses from 16 candidates. Thirteen of the 16 answered “yes” to at least four of the questions, indicating fairly liberal stands on criminal justice issues. In fact, 11 of the 16 support a criminal justice platform that I think would have been inconceivable even a decade ago for a presidential candidate who was actually trying to win (as opposed to running a more symbolic campaign). Those 11 all support abolishing the death penalty at the state and federal levels, legalizing marijuana at the state and federal levels, allowing people who are incarcerated to receive Pell Grants so that they can enroll in higher-education courses, and eliminating cash bail at all levels of government.

Two other candidates embraced at least four of the six ideas but with a slightly different mix. Tim Ryan doesn’t fully support getting rid of the death penalty; his campaign said he thinks there should be an exception for terrorists. But he favors an idea that some of the other candidates were hesitant to embrace: removing the Office of the Pardon Attorney from the Justice Department. (The Brennan Center argues that the department is run by prosecutors who may have an incentive to preserve conviction rates, creating potential conflicts of interest when it comes to issuing pardons. The center favors creating an independent board or commission that is outside the purview of the department to advise the president on pardons and commutations.) Inslee, meanwhile, also supports limiting the Justice Department’s role in pardons and commutations, but his aides did not give a clear “yes” or “no” to our question about cash bail.

It’s important to note that the candidates aligned with the Democrats’ most liberal wings (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, for example) are not the only ones taking these stances. Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Buttigieg and Ryan, who are all arguably more associated with the center-left of the party, were among the 13 taking clearly progressive stands on these issues.

Another bloc of Democrats is more centrist

Not everyone was aligned on these issues, however. Michael Bennet, John Delaney and Amy Klobuchar were generally more cautious. That’s not too surprising — they seem to be positioning themselves as the more centrist candidates in this primary field.

These candidates do not reject the party’s shift left on criminal justice issues but didn’t go as far as many of the others in their responses. Delaney, for example, suggested that he supported legalization of marijuana at the federal level but said that states should be able to make their own decision. (Of course, it’s possible that if we had asked different criminal justice-related questions, the candidates might line up differently.)

The field is mostly resistant to giving people who are incarcerated the ability to vote

Whether people who are incarcerated should be able to vote became an issue in the Democratic presidential contest a few months ago after Sanders answered a question at a town hall by saying that people shouldn’t lose their right to vote when they go to prison. In the aftermath, it became clear that many of the 2020 candidates were wary of that position. Of the 15 candidates who responded to our questions, only Sanders and long-shot hopeful Mike Gravel responded “yes” when asked if they supported “allowing at least some of those currently incarcerated to vote.” (Among the other candidates, O’Rourke came the closest to a “yes” — his campaign told us that he believes we should “rethink” the right to vote for “at least some” nonviolent offenders who are incarcerated.)

The other candidates generally emphasized that they supported the more traditional Democratic position: allowing felons to vote after they have served their sentences.

We aren’t sure about a lot of the candidates, most notably Joe Biden

We didn’t get responses from seven of the 23 Democratic campaigns we reached out to. That may be because they have a lot going on,2 or maybe they weren’t ready to answer the questions at that time. A Biden campaign aide suggested recently that the former vice president and his team want to announce policy proposals on their own schedule, not in response to journalists’ questions. Biden’s team has, at times, not been responsive to lists of questions from other news outlets too.

And nonresponse doesn’t necessarily indicate anything broader about a candidate’s commitment to addressing criminal justice issues. For example, Julian Castro’s campaign did not respond to our questions, but he recently released a proposal to change practices of police departments around the country, with the goal of preventing killings of unarmed people of color by police officers.

But Biden’s nonresponse is notable — and not just because he is the front-runner in the race. In the 1980s and 1990s, when he was in the Senate, Biden was, at times, one of the leading voices of the “tough-on-crime” wing of the Democratic Party. Two decades later, he was part of an Obama administration that pushed the Democrats toward a less punitive approach to law enforcement. So the key question is probably not whether Biden is now broadly supportive of more lenient criminal justice policies (I suspect he is) but how supportive.

In the past, Biden has defended the death penalty and emphasized the dangers of marijuana use. He also was a leading figure in the passage of a 1994 anti-crime bill that included the provision that bars people who are incarcerated from getting Pell Grants. But recently he reversed a stance he’d long held — opposing the federal funding of abortions — because it was basically untenable for a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Will Biden adapt to his party’s leftward drift on criminal justice issues as well? Or will he try to resist it, since he is, in some ways, running as a more old-line Democrat anyway?

UPDATE (June 21, 2019, 11:21 a.m.): This article has been updated to add responses to our questionnaire from Sen. Kamala Harris, and to add two additional “yes” responses from Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the Pell Grant and cash bail questions. The chart and relevant numbers in the text have been changed as a result.


  1. We had no specific reason to do criminal justice first and will hit other topics on both foreign and domestic policy.

    The six questions are:

    • Does she/he support getting rid of cash bail, at the federal and local/state levels?
    • Does she/he support abolishing the death penalty at the federal and state levels?
    • Does she/he support legalizing marijuana, at both the state and federal levels?
    • Does she/he support, as the Brennan Center has called for, removing the Office of the Pardon Attorney from the Department of Justice?
    • Would she/he support legislation ending the ban on people currently incarcerated from receiving Pell Grants?
    • Does she/he support allowing at least some of those currently incarcerated to vote?

  2. We gave the campaigns a week to provide responses.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.